The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Introduction and Commentary on Philemon

Posted by Dim Bulb on September 1, 2013

Text in purple indicates Fr. MacEvilly’s paraphrasing of the scripture he is commenting on.


PHILEMON, a native of Colossæ, in Phrygia, was converted to the faith, either by St. Paul himself, or by his disciple, Epaphras. He was of noble birth, and possessed of much riches. So great was the progress made by him in virtue, that, in a short time, his dwelling resembled a church, owing to the piety of his household, and the religious exercises unceasingly performed therein. He was distinguished for acts of generosity and charity towards the persecuted and distressed members of the Christian faith (Phm 5, 6, 7).

The occasion of this brief Epistle was the following:—Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves, after having robbed him, fled to Rome, where he found out St. Paul, then in his first imprisonment, about the year 62. The Apostle treated him with the utmost tenderness, proportioned to the magnitude of his guilt and the inveteracy of his disorders. And after having instructed him in the faith, converted and baptized him, sent him back to his master, with this commendatory Epistle, wherein he beseeches Philemon to receive him again into favour. This Epistle, though very brief, is regarded by Critics and Commentators, as a masterpiece of eloquence and pleading. In it, the Apostle brings forward, in the most engaging manner, all the motives which should induce Philemon to comply with his request. And, though he merely sought for the pardon of Onesimus; still, it is evident, that he expects from Philemon to grant him his liberty (Phm21); a request, however, which the Apostle forbears from making, lest it might appear to be asking too much. Moreover, it might seem opposed to his instructions to slaves (1 Cor. 7:21). The Epistle consists of an exordium, which, after the usual salutation, commences at Phm 4—of the proposition, Phm 8—and the conclusion, Phm 17.

It was written at Rome, at the same time, as the Epistle to the Colossians—viz, about the year 62.

Phm 1:1  Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy, a brother: to Philemon, our beloved and fellow labourer,

Paul, a prisoner in the cause of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother in Christ (write) to Philemon, our dearly beloved and our co-operator.

“A prisoner of Jesus Christ,” and, therefore, meriting that any request made by him should be attended to. It is remarked by Commentators, that from the beginning to the end of this Epistle, there is hardly a word which does not tend to enforce its object, viz., the pardon of Onesimus. For this end, the Apostle commences by referring to his chains, as if preparing Philemon to show mercy to his slave, in consideration of these chains. “And Timothy,” he adds him, in order that their joint intercession would prove more powerful. “And fellow-labourer.” In Greek, συνεργῷ, our co-operator; because, he contributed much both by his temporal wealth and example, to advance the cause of the Gospel.

Phm 1:2  And to Appia, our dearest sister, and to Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church which is in thy house.

And to Appia, our dearest sister in Christ, and to Archippus, our fellow-soldier in the struggles for the faith, and to the congregation of the faithful, which is in thy house.

“Appia;” most probably, the wife of Philemon. “Our dearest sister” “Sister,” is not in the Greek. “Archippus, our fellow-soldier,” in the Apostolic warfare. He was, according to some, a deacon; according to others, a priest or bishop—(Vide Colos. 4:17). “And the church which is in thy house,” i.e., his entire family, which was Christian. He enlists all these, so dear to Philemon, viz., his wife and entire family, in his cause. What an example is here given to those charged with the care of the poor and unfortunate! See, what exertions St. Paul, the Apostle of nations, makes in behalf of a fugitive slave, because he viewed him according to God, and in God!

Phm 1:3  Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

These verses include the salutation.

Phm 1:4  I give thanks to my God, always making a remembrance of thee in my prayers.

 Always mindful of thee in my prayers, I give thanks to God (for the blessings bestowed on thee).

In this verse, he commences the exordium, praising God for his gifts bestowed on Philemon, which is the same as tacitly praising Philemon himself for his good works, which must be the fruit of God’s grace. He also expresses his affection for him, which is best evinced by remembering him in his prayers.

Phm 1:5  Hearing of thy charity and faith, which thou hast in the Lord Jesus and towards all the saints:

Because I hear of thy faith in the Lord Jesus, and of thy charity to all Christians.

His “faith,” was in Christ Jesus, and his “charity” towards all Christians shown in deeds of beneficence. This is the clearest and most probable construction, connecting “faith” with the words “in the Lord Jesus,” and “charity” with the words “towards all the saints.” Similar is the expression in the Epistle to the Colossians, written at the same time (1:4). Before praising him for these acts, he refers the glory of these to God, in the preceding verse—“I give thanks to God, whose gifts they are.”

Phm 1:6  That the communication of thy faith may be made evident in the acknowledgment of every good work that is in you in Christ Jesus.

So that the beneficent results of thy faith are become evident to all, by the knowledge and rumour of the good works, performed by thee, through the grace of Christ Jesus.

“That the communication of thy faith,” i.e., the beneficent effects or fruits of your faith “is made evident to the acknowledgment of every good work,” in the public knowledge of the good works, which you and your entire family perform. For “evident,” SS. Jerome and Chrysostom, read, efficacious, the rendering of the Greek, ενεργης. According to this reading, the words of the Apostle contain an exhortation to Philemon, to render his faith an active, operative faith. The Vulgate is, however, more in accordance with the context; for, he had already praised his faith, as operative (5). The Vulgate interpreter probably read, εναργὴς. And the Greek word for “that,” ὅπως, means rather a consequence than a cause; hence, it means, “so that, the communication,” &c.

Phm 1:7  For I have had great joy and consolation in thy charity, because the bowels of the saints have been refreshed by thee, brother.

For, I have derived great joy and consolation from thy charity, my brother, because the Christians in distress have received the most cheering comfort and consolation at thy hands, (and hence my grounds for hoping for the pardon of thy Christian slave).

It is with reason he gives God thanks, because he felt great joy and consolation in hearing of the great comfort and refreshment which the Christians who were in want and distress received from Philemon. “The bowels of the saints,” express the great inward consolation they received; and if he was so good to all Christians, he will be equally kind to this Christian slave.

Phm 1:8  Wherefore, though I have much confidence in Christ Jesus to command thee that which is to the purpose:

Wherefore, although in quality of Apostle of Jesus Christ, I might use perfect freedom in commanding thee, in reference to a matter of duty;

Here the Apostle enters on the proposition. He might, as Apostle, use perfect liberty, in commanding Philemon in a matter of duty, without feeling any apprehension of meeting with any opposition.

Phm 1:9  For charity sake I rather beseech, whereas thou art such a one, as Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also of Jesus Christ.

Still, I prefer entreating it as a favour, to be conferred in consideration of friendship; since thou art an old man, like myself, who am now also in chains, for the cause of Jesus Christ.

Still, he preferred following another course, that of entreating him to do it in consideration of the friendship that subsisted between them, a course, which better suited Philemon, who was an old man, like the Apostle himself; and hence, issuing a command to him would be inconvenient. St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, &c., make the words “an old man,” refer to St. Paul himself, and this is one of the reasons why his request should not be refused; the fact also of his being an Apostle (“Paul”), and being “a prisoner,” &c., should strengthen his request.

Phm 1:10  I beseech thee for my son, whom I have begotten in my bands, Onesimus,

I entreat thee, then, in behalf of my son, Onesimus, begotten by me in chains,

Before introducing the name of Onesimus, he expresses the most endearing relations. “In bands.” The Greek is, ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου, in my bands.

Phm 1:11  Who hath been heretofore unprofitable to thee but now is profitable both to me and thee:

 Who hath been heretofore unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable both to me and to thee,

While admitting his fault, he extenuates it by merely saying that he was “unprofitable,” although, in point of fact, injurious; for, he robbed his master, when leaving him. “But now he is profitable to me,” by the services which he has rendered me. “And to you,” by rendering the services you would have rendered, and he will be profitable to you, in future. In the word “profitable,” allusion is made to the etymology of “Onesimus,” as much as to say, he will be, in reality, what his name imports, viz., “profitable.” The Greek adjective, ὀνησιμος, signifies, advantageous. In this verse, is contained an additional reason for taking him back, grounded on his usefulness.

Phm 1:12  Whom I have sent back to thee. And do thou receive him as my own bowels.

Whom I have sent back to thee, do thou, therefore, receive him as my own bowels.

“Do thou receive him as my own bowels,” treat him with some degree of respect. What a reproach to many masters who treat their servants with more severity than they would treat the brute beasts! “I have sent back to thee.” The words “to thee” are not in the Greek. They are found in the copy used by St. Chrysostom.

Phm 1:13  Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered to me in the bands of the gospel.

I was desirous of retaining him with myself, in order that he might perform for me, who am in chains, for the cause of the Gospel, those services, which thou thyself wouldst cheerfully have performed wert thou here with me.

Another reason for treating him with indulgence, was the regard the Apostle had for him, and also the fact, that he has discharged those offices towards the Apostle, which his master would have discharged, had he been at Rome. The reference to his chains, and to the vicarious services of Onesimus, all tend to obtain pardon.

Phm 1:14  But without thy counsel I would do nothing: that thy good deed might not be as it were of necessity, but voluntary.

However, I was unwilling to do anything of the kind, without first consulting you, so that your benefit towards me would not appear the result of necessity, but perfectly voluntary.

The defence of the Apostle towards Philemon, tends to the same: he might retain this slave on account of the wants of the Church; but he would not, lest the kindness of his master would appear to be the result of compulsion, instead of seeming to be perfectly voluntary.

Phm 1:15  For perhaps he therefore departed for a season from thee that thou mightest receive him again for ever:

Perhaps also God permitted him to leave you for a time, in order that you would receive him back, never again to leave you

Another motive for pardoning him is, that his flight was, in the ways of God’s Providence, the occasion of his conversion. “That thou mightest receive him for ever,” may mean, that he would never again desert his service; or, “for ever” may mean, that as a Christian brother, he would never be separated from him, even in eternal glory. He uses the mildest terms to express the guilt of his flight, “departed for a season.” Then, as it was perhaps the will of God that he should depart; surely, Philemon would not oppose this will, nor refuse pardon to a man already reconciled and at peace with God.

Phm 1:16  Not now as a servant, but instead of a servant, a most dear brother, especially to me. But how much more to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord?

And that you might receive him, not merely as a slave, but as a most beloved brother, particularly beloved by me; how much more beloved ought he be by you both on account of the bodily servitude he owes you, and on account of spiritual fraternity?

Again, can he refuse pardon to one who was most dear to St. Paul as his spiritual son, who was his own slave, over whose person he had perfect control? “Both in the flesh,” and who from a slave had become, a brother in Christ, a fellow-member of his mystical body. “And in the Lord.”

Phm 1:17  If therefore thou count me a partner, receive him as myself.

If, then, you regard me as partaker of the faith, and value my friendship in Christ, receive him as you would myself, i.e., I shall value the kindness shown him, as if paid to myself.

He recommences the conclusion. He then concludes by conjuring Philemon, if he regards himself as strictly united with him in faith, if he values his friendship, to treat this slave with kindness. “Receive him as myself;” not that he meant the same degree of respect to be shown Onesimus that was due to himself; but that any kindness shown, he might look on as shown to himself.

Phm 1:18  And if he hath wronged thee in any thing or is in thy debt, put that to my account.

But whatever loss he may have inflicted on you at his departure, or whatever he may owe you, charge to my account (I shall be answerable for it).

Lest his having robbed his master should cause any obstacle to his being received back without making reparation, the Apostle undertakes to make restitution himself to the necessary amount, if required.

Phm 1:19  I Paul have written it with my own hand: I will repay it: not to say to thee that thou owest me thy own self also.

And as security, that I will fully satisfy your claims, you have this Epistle, written and signed by my own hand. I shall make no mention of a debt of greater value, and of longer standing, which you owe me for your conversion to the faith—you owe me your entire person, your entire salvation.

And he gives as a security for the payment, this Epistle written with his own hand, promising it. Some say the entire Epistle was written by the Apostle himself; others say, only this verse. He, at the same time, reminds Philemon of a heavier debt due by the latter to himself—he owed him his conversion, his eternal salvation. He was either converted by St. Paul himself, some say, at Ephesus; or, by Epaphras, his disciple.

Phm 1:20  Yea, brother. May I enjoy thee in the Lord! Refresh my bowels in the Lord.

Come, therefore, brother, I shall obtain from you the joy in the Lord resulting from your kindness; by this act of kindness, refresh my heart in the Lord.

He, finally, resorts to the language of blandishment, to gain the same end. “Yea,” i.e., come on. “May I enjoy thee in the Lord,” i.e., obtain this favour from thee, which will be a source of real spiritual joy. “Refresh my bowels,” may refer to Onesimus, as if he said, refresh Onesimus, whom you should receive as my bowels; any injury shown him would be the same as if my entrails were torn, and the greatest torture inflicted on me.

Phm 1:21  Trusting in thy obedience, I have written to thee: knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

I have thus written to you from the firmest reliance on your obedience, knowing well you will do more than I ask.

“Do more than I say.” In this is implied the giving him his freedom.

Phm 1:22  But withal prepare me also a lodging. For I hope that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

 I also entreat of you to prepare for me a lodging; for, I hope through your prayers, to be delivered from prison and restored to you.

The very determination of St. Paul to lodge with him, tends to obtain this request. Philemon, on the recommendation of St. Paul, granted Onesimus his liberty, and sent him back to the Apostle to serve him at Rome; but the Apostle did not require his corporal services, and so he made him a fellow-labourer in the gospel. St. Jerome (Epistola 62, c. 2), and other Fathers say, he made him a Bishop. According to Baronius, he was made Bishop of Ephesus; but this is denied by many, who say, that the St. Onesimus, who was third Bishop of Ephesus, after Timothy, was quite a different person.

This Epistle, though very brief, contains, as St. Chrysostom remarks, most excellent lessons. Among the rest, that we should not despair of the salvation of any one, however abandoned. Again, the example of the Apostle, taking such interest in the concerns of a fugitive slave, who robbed his master, teaches us that every attention should be paid to the unfortunate; that servants should be treated with the utmost consideration, as being our brethren in Christ Jesus, as also destined for the same glory. “Masters do to your servants,” &c., “knowing that you too have a master in heaven.” (Colos. 4:1).

Phm 1:23  There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus:
Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, salutes you.
Phm 1:24  Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow labourers.
So do my fellow-labourers in the cause of the gospel, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.
Phm 1:25  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Fr. MacEvilly offers no commentary on these verses, but he does make the following remark on a dubious subscription: 

The Greek subscription has the following: “Written from Rome to Philemon by Onesimus, a servant.” The Codex Vaticanus merely has “To Philemon.”

It is needless to remark, that this subscription does not belong to the text, although it correctly states the fact, in the present instance: generally speaking, however, these subscriptions, as has been mentioned already, are of rather doubtful authority, and, in some instances, by no means correct.



One Response to “Father MacEvilly’s Introduction and Commentary on Philemon”

  1. […] Bishop MacEvilly’s Commentary on Philemon 9-10, 12-17. Introduction and commentary on the entire brief letter. […]

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